How Does the ART of Communication Work?

I have often asked my couples in therapy, men in particular, what they would give me if I could cut their fight-time in half. As you can imagine they are desperate enough to promise me their firstborn – though not a fair commodity since that’s a double win for them seeing as their first born is usually a teenager, ha. So I tell them, fight-times are cut in half if someone will listen while the other one is speaking. 

Our Key Core Beliefs, or the beliefs we deeply hold about ourselves, are often triggered when we feel criticized. If someone points out something we are not doing “right” then we figure that they are saying we are doing it “wrong” or even “I am wrong”. So let's clean this up in our vocabulary. It’s not “right” or “wrong” or “I am right” or “I am wrong”. Let's pay attention instead to perspective, which can’t be a Key Core Belief because it makes no sense to be “I am perspective”. Instead, it’s about the ability to communicate to effectively understand the other person’s perspective, so it’s “I am an effective communicator”.

To truly communicate, you have to learn the ART of listening. The ART just uses a few specific rules but before we address those rules, we must first take a deep breathe...John Gottman, a marriage researcher from Seattle, Washington has found that when your heart rate is over 100 bpm, no effective communication can happen because your built-in alarm system was just triggered. This alarm system has a name: Diffuse Physiological Arousal or DPA for short. When your body hits DPA mode your heart speeds up, so it pumps your blood faster, raising your heart rate (bpm). You personally might feel other indicators like blotchy skin or tears forming in your eyes or you shut down and stop talking or you say the same thing over and over again or your throat feels tight or you suddenly feel sick to your stomach. These feelings lead to the infamous fight, flight, or freeze responses. The two most basic ones we will look at are fight, which in relationship terms we will call “pursue” and flight we will call “withdraw”. No communicating will happen if you feel your heart beating this fast because of the DPA response, so take a minute to breathe and calm down. Now on to the rules…

Rule #1:
Actively listen…to listen, you generally can’t speak! It doesn’t work. Further, you can’t think of what you are going to say next. You can, however, repeat back to see if you are understanding (so am I understanding this right, you would like me to…. or if I’m hearing you correctly, you’d like me to….) this helps you to listen for comprehension.
Rule #2: Relate through empathy…the reason why people repeat themselves over and over is because they don’t feel heard. By repeating back you are not trying to mock their perception or point of view but to gain empathy in what it’s like to be them. This is a very important point. So I often say to my couples, if I were you I can imagine I might feel _______. That is your end goal. What is it like to be the other person? Again remember, this is not about what’s right or wrong, it’s about having empathy for what the other is going through. If one partner doesn’t feel heard, that partner is not going to hear your response anyway so your response is irrelevant until your partner is heard.
Rule #3:
Trust in the other person’s good intentions…to be trusting in the other person’s good intentions we have to understand where the other person is coming from. All the other person wants is to be heard or what therapy refers to as validated. This doesn’t mean that we agree, it just means that we accept their viewpoint as valid. Once we acknowledge that, we can more calmly sit down and talk.

So the ART of communication is:
A=actively listen
R=relate through empathy
T=trust in the other person’s good intentions.